In recent years, one of the positive trends in the Hollywood blockbuster business has been the smartening up of genres with dumbness in their DNA. Directors like Christopher Nolan and Sam Mendes are being tapped to lend layers of sophistication and irony to the popcorn-cinema trade, to give us something extra to think about as we rethink about Batman and Bond.
Now comes the winning and refreshingly fine sci-fi monster movie Pacific Rim, from the inspired hand of Mexican director Guillermo (Pan’s Labyrinth) del Toro, in which the basic underlying template is a kind of latter-day, vastly more expensive and visually convincing — and thus scarifying — take on Godzilla versus Rodan. It’s almost as if the director/cowriter assigned himself the challenge of creating art from kitsch. And it worked.
Aliens are invading our precious planet, and not from the intergalactic reaches but from the undersea depths of the Pacific (hence the film’s title, regarding the extended geographical zone subject to attacks by these destruction-hungry monsters). Even before the title appears onscreen, 15 minutes into the film, the storyline is in place: It’s a war between the grisly, leviathan alien ocean dwellers, the Kaijus, and the mondo robots, Jaegers, created by the military to engage in fierce real-time, old-fashioned “hand-to-hand” combat with the unruly creatures. Will the alien invaders succeed in taking over our planet? Will a plan to nuke the ocean floor “breach” where they dwell and fix the problem?
Pacific Rim has what you want for summer fun in a movie theater, including hulking hardware and CGI whizbang (and well-deployed 3-D, for those inclined to don the glasses), battling monsters, and vivid fight scenes (including one in which the forces of muscle and digital technology intermingle in an existential wire-crossing way). But it also has head games in the mix, through the process of “drifting” between the twin Jaeger pilot/controllers, who “mind-meld” before entering the command pod of a Jaeger. “The better you bond, the stronger you fight,” says our protagonist (Charlie Hunnam). We get some family dynamics and complications to stir up the narrative plot, as well.
I remember seeing del Toro’s early film Cronos at the Santa Barbara International Film Festival years ago and being surprisingly impressed by the director’s elegant reworking of a horror film trope. Pan’s Labyrinth managed an even greater feat in the fantasy realm. And for his next trick … Pacific Rim does the monster mash real well, with intelligence and artistry as steady, sneaky copilots.